Category Archives: Writing

Christmas News From A Parallel Universe

Brent Huckabee: Welcome back. We’re now joined by child psychologist Doctor Marietta van den Polt, who’s been at the centre of today’s unfolding story. Marietta, thanks for joining us. You were involved in the identification of the many families who were the subject of the mass social-work intervention this morning, is that correct?

Marietta van den Polt: Thanks Brent, glad to be here. Yes, my colleagues and I worked with police and social-work departments across the nation, to ensure that we could get as many of these children as possible into protective custody today.

BH: And Marietta, so far we’ve been given to understand that this massive concerted action was undertaken because of some bizarre Christmas-related ritual enacted by these families. Do we have that right?

MvdP: That’s right. The parents were following a practice that we believed might be harmful to their children’s mental health.

BH: Tell us more.

MvdP: Well, Brent, they were largely celebrating Christmas in the traditional way—hanging lights and decorations, meetings with family and friends, sharing celebratory meals, gift-giving and so on.

BH: So nothing wrong there.

MvdP: No, no, not at all. Except that these parents, instead of giving their children Christmas gifts in the usual way, chose to deceive them. They represented to their children that their gifts had been delivered to the house, while the family slept, by a … well, by a supernatural entity.

BH: A supernatural entity. You mean like a ghost?

MvdP: No, Brent. It has a closer resemblance to some sort of Jungian archetype, like Slender Man or the Chupacabras. This … thing … is described as having the appearance of an elderly, obese male. It laughs a lot, in a stylized and disturbing way—a sort of deep repetitive “Ho Ho Ho” that doesn’t resemble normal laughter. And it wears some kind of costume, something that perhaps has its origin in the garb of comic-book superheroes. There’s a red suit, trimmed in white fur, and black boots. We’re also getting narratives that involve some sort of matching headgear, but we really haven’t gotten far with our parental interrogations yet.

BH: We have an artist’s impression here, Marietta. Does that look about right?

MvdP: I guess so. I’m not sure we have reports of fangs though, Brent. Not yet, anyway.

BH: So the parents are telling the children that this … archetype, as you call it, is delivering their Christmas gifts? For some reason the parents don’t want the child to know that they, the parents I mean, are buying, or maybe I suppose making, these gifts for the child?

MvdP: That’s right. But what they’re saying, and we’re getting this over and over again in our initial interviews, is that this entity breaks into the family home and leaves these gifts, unobserved, during the night.

BH: Breaks in? Like, kicks down a door or something? Yikes.

MvdP: No, the creature is actually commonly represented as gaining access to the house via the chimney.

BH: Wait. Wait. You said it looked like an obese man. Is this a full-sized obese man? Coming down a regular chimney?

MvdP: Yes Brent. I know it seems weird, but this is what these parents have been putting into their children’s heads. This thing comes down the chimney at dead of night.

BH: So does it fly, or what? How does it get on the roof?

MvdP: It’s said to travel in something called a sleigh—

BH: Whoa, whoa, whoa. A “slay”? As in “killing someone”?

MvdP: No, no. It’s a sleigh, with an ee, eye, gee, aitch. It’s actually an antique form of transport, like a sled. It’s a very unusual word.

BH: So it gets on to the roof using a sled? How is that supposed to be even possible?

MvdP: What we’re being told, and these parents seem to feel this is a rational and normal thing to tell a child, is that the sleigh is pulled by flying reindeer. They all have names—

BH: Wait. Wait. I’m having trouble processing this. The parents conceal the fact that they have bought their children Christmas gifts, and instead tell them that the gifts come from a supernatural fat man who travels in some sort of killing machine—

MvdP: It’s not a killing machine, Brent. It’s just a sort of sled pulled by animals.

BH: Flying animals. And he breaks into people’s houses while they sleep. And that’s the story these people are putting in their kids’ heads. To conceal from them the perfectly natural and reasonable fact that loving parents give their children gifts at Christmas. Am I right?

MvdP: Pretty much so. There’s another bit about elves at the North Pole that we haven’t really clarified yet. They don’t seem to be anything like the elves in the Lord Of The Rings movies, though. It’s difficult to know where they fit in to the narrative, right now.

BH: [Rocking in seat, clutching head theatrically] These poor kids. These poor kids. God bless you, Marietta, for rescuing these poor kids. How long has this been going on for, do you think?

MvdP: Well, it’s obviously just come to the attention of the child-care services, because of information these parents have been sharing on social media sites, but we believe for decades. Probably generations.

BH: Generations! You’re kidding me. This stuff has been going on for generations?

MvdP: Yes, there’s evidence of a sort of cycle of abuse, in which children subjected to this delusive behaviour go on to visit it on their own children. Grandparents then seem to act as enablers, sometimes elaborating the story in various ways. There’s a recurring theme in which this entity keeps children under constant observation, so as to be able to punish them for bad behaviour, or reward them for good.

BH: Oh my dear Lord. And why are they doing this thing? What possible reason can there be for it?

MvdP: We don’t really understand it. There’s a phrase they repeat, but it doesn’t make much sense.

BH: What is it?

MvdP: They say, “We just want to see their little faces light up.”

BH: My God. My God, Marietta. How does all this … hallucinogenic nonsense do that?

MvdP: We don’t know Brent. At this point we don’t really understand much about the motivations of what we’re calling the “Santaic cult”, but be assured we’re going to be asking a lot of very serious questions in the next few days.

BH: I’m sure you will Marietta. Thank you for that, on my behalf and I’m sure from all our viewers too. Thank you. [Turns to face camera] And I’m sure we’ll hear much more on this bizarre and deeply troubling story over the next few days. But after the break, we’re getting early reports of another mental health threat to our children. It’s called “the Tooth Fairy”. Stay tuned.

Download this text as a pdf document

New Government Self-Isolation Advice

Well, there’s nothing like being in lock-down in your own house during an epidemic to put a crimp in the whole “oikofuge” thing. So the Oikofuge is at present forced to revive his dormant childhood oikotropism. Expect more posts about words and books and model-making for the next few months, and very little about walking and travel.

The current state of affairs has also rather overtaken my plans for an April 1st post, on the theme of self-isolation advice, which I cheerily knocked together a few weeks ago. But here it is anyway. Keep safe out there.

As a means of improving the morale of the people of the United Kingdom in these difficult times, Her Majesty’s Government has identified an additional group of people we ask to enter voluntary self-isolation. To find out if you fall into this new and important category, please respond honestly to the questions below:

Have you, in the last two months, made any of the following statements, either verbally or in writing, under such circumstances that another person might be exposed to the content:

  • It was all cooked up in a secret Chinese/American laboratory, you know
  • I blame the 5G phone masts, myself
  • It rose quickly, it could go just as quickly
  • Gargling with bleach will stop you getting it
  • Rinsing your nostrils regularly with saline will stop you getting it
  • Sipping water every 15 minutes will stop you getting it
  • Rubbing your body with alcohol will stop you getting it
  • Vitamin C / garlic / essential oils /colloidal silver will stop you getting it
  • Hot-air hand dryers will sterilize your hands and stop you getting it
  • Hot baths will destroy the virus in your body and stop you getting it
  • I certainly wouldn’t risk Chinese food at present
  • I certainly wouldn’t risk Corona beer at present

If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, the Government advises you to enter a period of self-isolation for six months, in the first instance, and subject to review at the end of that period. For the purposes of this advice, “self-isolation” includes a complete cessation of all social media activity, and the use of telephone, email and messaging services strictly for business or emergency purposes only.

Because, frankly, people have enough to put up with at present without being exposed to your nonsense, too.


Secretive Sidlaws

Cover of The Geographer, Autumn 2018

A short post this week, but with the potential for more reading than usual. Last summer, an invitation arrived out of the blue from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, to make a contribution to their magazine, The Geographer. They wanted me to write about the Sidlaw Hills, for an issue devoted to the River Tay. Not many people write about the Sidlaws, and it seems my various wanderings among those hills, which I’ve described here, have edged me towards expert status in a very small field of competitors.

The piece, entitled “Secretive Sidlaws”, appeared in the Autumn 2018 edition of the magazine, but I’ve held off mentioning it here until a copy is freely downloadable. You’ll find it here. Your Humble Correspondent turns up on page 15, but the rest of the magazine provides a lot of interesting reading.

Muriel Gray: The First Fifty

cover of The First Fifty by Muriel GrayRight, this is a little odd. I’m not actually going to review this one. It comes up purely in the context of something I found on my hard drive that I’d completely forgotten about.

First, a bit of background. Muriel Gray had been around as a TV presenter and columnist for quite a while when this book was published. The First Fifty: Munro-Bagging Without A Beard appeared in 1991, effectively as a companion volume to her popular series on Scottish Television, The Munro Show, about hill-walking in general and climbing Munros in particular.

Despite its immense popularity among British hill-walkers, I never got into The Munro Show. Gray cultivated a full-on TV persona that was equal parts chirpy and stroppy, which certainly served as an antidote to the ponderous, middle-aged male ambience of a typical Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook—and that was no doubt entirely the point. But it all made me feel … well … really tired after the first few minutes. (And, before you ask, I’m only a year older than she is.) It’s just that I go to the hills for peace and quiet and serenity, and The Munro Show seemed to undermine my whole motivation. Take a look at the opening sequence and see if it induces a sense of serene contemplation in you:

So, anyway, about four years later I was given a copy of the book, by a friend who had received it as a Christmas gift three years in succession. (In her introduction to the book, Gray had actually predicted that this sort of thing would happen to hill-walkers.) And of course the book turned out to be very much in the style of the TV programme—which meant it, too, was hugely popular but wasn’t really my thing. (This happens to me a lot, though. Looking at you, Game of Thrones.)

What I did notice when I was reading it was that it hadn’t been very well proof-read. This is depressingly common nowadays, but was still a little unusual back in the early ’90s. Mainly, there were two recurring spelling choices that struck me then (and still strike me today) as being … um … well, striking, in a book aimed at a hill-walking readership.

So I sat down and wrote a little piece about it for The Angry Corrie (Scotland’s First and Finest Hillwalking Fanzine), which appeared in March 1996. I think it’s a great testament to the popularity of The First Fifty that, almost five years after its publication, I didn’t actually have to mention the title—from a very brief description, every one of my hill-going readers was going to know exactly which book I was talking about.

So here’s the piece, recently recovered from the depths of my hard drive. Some of my Lachlan stories had been appearing in The Angry Corrie round about that time, so it features Lachlan and his long-suffering narrator (albeit weirdly channelling Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes) in their favourite Dundee pub.


I arrived at our usual table in the Peh and Pint to find Lachlan flicking angrily through a paperback book, his lips set in a pale, wrathful line. At my arrival, he set aside his book, passed a weary hand across his face, and then fixed me with a steady gaze. “Might I ask you a few questions?”

I nodded my assent.

“Thank you. Imprimis: do you know why the fabric Gore-Tex is so called?”

I raised an eyebrow. “But of course. The name derives from that of the manufacturer, WL Gore.”

Lachlan nodded solemnly. “So you would, perhaps, feel that the central letter ‘e’ is an essential part of the name?”

“Indeed. While I have seen the hyphen and the capitals dropped in casual writing, to omit the ‘e’ is to insult the Gore family and their genius.”

“Quite so. Secundus: would you say that the French language has much use for the letter ‘k’?”

I considered this carefully. “Well. One must allow that the placenames of Brittany show some predilection for that letter …”

Lachlan raised an admonitory hand. “A region in which the purity of the French tongue has been much diluted by Celtic influences. We speak now only of French of the true Latinate descent, the language of Voltaire and Descartes.”

“Why, with that proviso, I would state that the letter ‘k’ is notably absent from the French.”

Lachlan nodded gravely. “Tertius: do you believe that the word ‘cagoule’ is of French origin?”

“With all my heart. It is no more than the French word for ‘hood’. One must only recall that the French equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan was named Les Cagoulards to …”

Again Lachlan raised an admonitory hand. “Doubtless a fascinating tale, but one that is at best tangential to my present theme. May I take it for now that, as a necessary consequence of my second and third points, you would accept that the word ‘cagoule’ should not, in all conscience, be spelt with an initial ‘k’?”

“I recoil at the very thought.”

“As I knew you would. Now. Quartus: given the climatic zone in which the Scottish mountains are located, and the exertions to which those who climb among these mountains are prone, perhaps you may agree with me that the Gore-Tex cagoule is the natural, nay the defining, item of apparel for the Scottish mountaineer?”

“Certainly. The garment’s ability to shed water whilst allowing the microscopic moisture of perspiration to escape unhindered commends it above all things.”

Lachlan sighed and sat back. “I have finished. We are in complete agreement.”

His hand trembling with strong emotion, he raised his book so that I might examine it. I need not give the title here: suffice it to say that the cover bears an image of a thin, spiky-haired, blonde woman, possessed of a certain perkiness of character that some find wearisome. “Is it not then a strange, terrible and above all ironic thing that this book, a bestseller in the annals of Scottish hill-walking publication, should consistently misspell the words ‘Gore-Tex’ and ‘cagoule’ in just the manner we have discussed?” he asked, in the tones of one mortally wounded.

And we fell into a disconsolate silence that lasted for some time.

First published in The Angry Corrie No.26, Feb/Mar 1996

"Gortex kagoul", page 166 of The First Fifty

Gear Review: Bolt-On™ Virtua-Trekker

HeadsetFor the last few months I’ve been cutting a dash on the hills wearing the wrap-round headset pictured above. It’s the core component of the new Virtua-Trekker—the first application of Virtual Reality for the hill-walker or fell-runner—and the nice people at Bolt-On™ Cybernetics have been kind enough to give me an early prototype to review. I’ve been under a press embargo until today (April 1st), and I’m also obliged to let Bolt-On™’s lawyers review my proposed text before it goes live—hopefully they won’t find too many commercially sensitive details to object to.

Bolt-On™ have a long history as developers of hi-tech outdoors equipment. In the mid-90s, trading as the Bolt-On™ Corporation, they hit the market with a succession of emergency “surgical management” devices for hill-goers, most famously their Leg Repair Kit—a simple external fixator designed to be applied to a broken leg by either the casualty or a companion, stabilizing the fracture so as to allow the injured person to walk off the hill unaided. These were surprisingly cheap and initially sold well, but a number of high-profile adverse outcomes dogged the company into the early 2000s, culminating in a civil lawsuit brought on behalf of [REDACTED] which was eventually settled for [REDACTED]. Bolt-On™ effectively went dark for a decade thereafter, rumoured to be [REDACTED], before re-emerging as Bolt-On™ Cybernetics a couple of years ago, with a new mission statement to supply Augmented Reality products for outdoors activities.

The Virtua-Trekker is their flagship device, consisting of the goggles illustrated above with a visual field of [REDACTED] degrees containing [REDACTED] pixels in each lens, a GPS receiver/processor unit about the size of a small [REDACTED] and weighing [REDACTED] which can be carried in any reasonably sized rucksack, an optional microphone for the voice-recognition interface, and an accelerometer-glove (right hand only) for the gestural interface. The whole assembly is designed to lay what Bolt-On™ call Annotated Reality on to the user’s view of the outdoors—navigational information, weather updates, data tagging of landscape features, and so on. The various components can be connected to each other by cable or Bluetooth, and the processor unit can be linked to a home network for updates, data backup, and the transfer of waypoints and route files in several standard formats.


The processor connected readily to my wireless network. I was able to download the North Britain dataset from the Bolt-On™ website without difficulty—I understand access to a range of datasets, including [REDACTED], will be a subscription service when the device is released commercially. I was also able to transfer route files in *.gpx format from my PC’s mapping software to the device.

GPS reception seems to be generally stable, though I did encounter a certain amount of what Bolt-On™ refer to as “intermittent route lurch” while passing through dense forest, and one episode of “secular route drift” on steep ground.

The rechargeable batteries for the unit seem to have a lifetime of about four hours, so spares will need to be carried for all but the shortest trips.

The goggles are comfortable to wear in cool weather, but can become a little claustrophobic when it’s warm. My unit displayed a tendency to internal fogging when I exerted myself, but the Bolt-On™ technicians assure me this is unlikely to happen for someone who is “reasonably fit”. Rain on the lenses is an issue, and the hydrophobic wipes provided were only a partial solution. The bulky headgear certainly attracted attention—most people I encountered expressed interest, some were sympathetic, and a small number were verbally abusive.

I was unable to test the real-time weather update feature, which reportedly adds a graphical representation of approaching weather fronts to the virtual environment. This feature requires 3G network coverage, which was of course completely absent in the Scottish Highlands.

The voice-recognition interface functioned poorly in all but light winds, and I soon abandoned its use. The gestural interface is intuitive, allowing the user to tap through various function menus (presented at a virtual distance of about a metre). However, it can send unintended signals during normal hand movements. For example, while unscrewing the cap of my flask I inadvertently and unexpectedly accessed an “Easter Egg” routine—a game mode called Zombie Apocalypse that was quite distressing at the time. The programmers tell me that its presence will be properly flagged in the instruction manual of the commercial product, though they did seem a little disappointed that I hadn’t enjoyed the experience more.


Basic navigation mode includes a direction indicator in the upper field of view, a route trace, annotated waypoints, and a set of “data packets” attached to various landscape features. I found the route trace (which laid my intended route on to the landscape as a red line) invaluable, especially in poor visibility.

Virtua-Trekker 1
Click to enlarge
Virtual-Trekker 2
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The data packets available in my unit opened what appeared to be copies of Wikipedia pages, which were of neither use nor interest, occasionally fatuous and often misplaced.


View mode provides the names of landscape features visible on the horizon—which should finally put a stop to those endless “Can you see Schiehallion from here?” arguments.

Virtua-Trekker 5
Click to enlarge

Switching to “mist mode” also provides an overlay sketch of the horizon itself, allowing the user to “enjoy the view” even when real-world visibility is restricted to a few metres. While the Bolt-On™ technicians seemed proud of the amount of processing required to produce this feature in real time, I found it tantalizing and annoying rather than useful.

Virtua-Trekker 6
Click to enlarge


This is one of the most innovative features of the kit. In default mode, it generates a virtual hiker who moves at a steady speed determined by Naismith’s Rule (a method of calculating the time required to complete a walk of given distance and ascent). The formula parameters are customizable (including an allowance for descent, which will be welcomed by those whose knees are of a certain age). Fell-runners are served by “Naismith Runners” of varying degrees of fitness, all suitably lean and lycra-clad.

Virtua-Trekker 3
Click to enlarge

The Naismith Walker provides a ready estimate of how quickly (or slowly) you are progressing relative to your aspirational timings. It can be a little unsettling, however, to pause for a breather on a steep slope only to have the virtual Walker pass through you from behind and stride away uphill.  The interface provides a small selection of Walker avatars to choose from—male or female, young or old. I also discovered the option to have the Walker appear in the form of Death—a flying, black-hooded skeleton carrying a scythe. (I presume this was inserted by the same programmers who provided me with a Zombie Apocalypse halfway up the Stone Chute on Beinn Eighe.)

One disadvantage of the Walker’s steady pace is that the virtual figure falls well behind on flat ground, but quickly catches up during the ascent. After I turned around to see the figure of Death sweeping up the misty slopes of Ben Loyal towards me, I turned off the Naismith Walker.

Virtua-Trekker 4
Click to enlarge

When I later remarked to the Bolt-On™ representatives that watching the approach of the Death avatar was a little reminiscent of the plot of the 2014 horror film It Follows, they became visibly excited. I understand they are now in licensing negotiations with the film’s production company.


A remarkable and innovative piece of kit that nevertheless has [REDACTED].

Life Imitates Art

Mechanical trousers will help turn mountains into molehills (Times: May 12, 2016)An article by Tom Whipple in The Times today (May 12, 2016) reports on a set of powered trousers designed by Panizollo et al. and described in an article published today by the Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation:A biologically-inspired multi-joint soft exosuit that can reduce the energy cost of loaded walking“.

The authors conclude:

Our results demonstrate that an autonomous soft exosuit can reduce the metabolic burden experienced by load carriers, possibly augmenting their overall gait performance.

The overall reduction in work associated with walking is around seven per cent—”something you can just about feel”, according to one of the authors (Walsh), quoted in The Times. That’s in line with previous studies of other devices, which the authors mention in the Discussion section of their paper (my link takes you to the full-text, Open Access article).

Whipple sees an application to hillwalking:

It will be just enough, in other words, that you can turn up at your local Ramblers’ Association and make the other walkers feel inadequate, without also making them suspicious.

All this is very gratifying to me, since I invented the device (fictionally, at least) a good 23 years ago, when I wrote a story entitled “Lachlan and the Bionic Long-Johns”, in which my hero Lachlan McLoughlin takes on various hill challenges while wearing something rather similar. My version worked rather better (that’s the joy of fiction, of course), and you can see it in action in Chris Tyler‘s lovely cartoon on the rear cover of my (long out-of-print) book Munro’s Fables (TACit Press, 1993):Rear cover of Munro's Fables(You can nowadays find the story in the e-book The Complete Lachlan or the paperback The Complete Lachlan & Walking Types.)

I can’t really claim all the credit, though. The idea of a powered exoskeleton has been around since at least 1959, when Robert Heinlein described a full-body version in his novel Starship Troopers.

Biggles FRCA

Biggles FRCA cover
A cover botched up by The Oikofuge, from an original Air Service recruiting poster by Otho Cushing (1917)

Of the research I’ve done, and the opinion pieces I’ve had published during my professional life, only one article seems to have had any lasting impact. It’s Biggles FRCA.

I wrote it on a whim one Sunday afternoon in 1998, and sent it off to a free magazine that was then being distributed to my profession in the UK, Today’s Anaesthetist. It saw print in the July/August edition that year. They spelled my name wrongly, and added a typo that changed the sense of one important sentence. I wasn’t particularly concerned—it was just a bit of whimsy, after all.

And then something odd happened. People laminated it and stuck it up on the wall of their common room. At meetings, colleagues were seeking me out to ask if I was the one who’d written Biggles FRCA. After a while, a plain text version showed up as an e-mail attachment that went the rounds intermittently. A bit later, people started to post it on their blogs—sometimes with appropriate attribution, sometimes not.

My little bit of whimsical fluff had turned into an Internet Phenomenon, albeit at a strictly homeopathic level. And it’s still out there, rattling endlessly around the blogosphere. It has even been cited in a scientific journal* and a textbook (the latter being the only time I will ever appear in a reference list that also includes “Shakespeare W” and “Wodehouse PG”).

So I thought it was time to repossess it—which also gives me the chance to remove the accumulated typos, get my name spelled properly, and give due credit to its original publishers.

By way of explanation: Biggles is the pilot hero of a series of novels written by Captain W.E. Johns (you probably knew that); FRCA is the Fellowship of the Royal College of Anaesthetists, a postgraduate qualification that is a marker of due professional training for UK anaesthetists. The story came about because of a then-popular analogy (popular among anaesthetists, that is) comparing the process of anaesthetizing a patient for surgery with flying an aeroplane. Putting the patient to sleep was like the take-off, maintenance of anaesthesia during surgery was like level flight, waking the patient up was like the landing. Various allegedly informative parallels were drawn. Biggles FRCA found humour by taking that analogy and running with it, putting poor Biggles into the cockpit of an aeroplane that was behaving as if it were a patient undergoing surgery.

I should add a disclaimer, I suppose. I believe strongly that the aviation industry has many lessons to teach health-care practitioners. Aviation engineers and pilots have a deep understanding of the failure modes of complex systems operated by fallible humans, and have developed ways of minimizing the associated risks. And anaesthetists are nowadays working hard to learn from the aviation model. However, all that serious and important stuff is a world away from the rather simple-minded analogy I was poking fun at in Biggles FRCA.

So here it is—the full, corrected text appears below. For fun, I’ve also put it together in downloadable form as a pdf and in a couple of e-book formats. (And if you download one of the e-books, you also get the fine cover page featured at the top of this post!)

mobi (zipped file, for the Amazon Kindle)
epub (zipped file, a generic e-book format)

* Vickers MD. The psychology of human error. European Journal of Anaesthesiology 1999; 16: 578
Nethercott D, The Fundamental Principles of Anaesthesia. In: Cottle D, Laha S, eds Anaesthetics for Junior Doctors and Allied Professionals: The Essential Guide. London: Radcliffe Publishing, 2013

Grant Hutchison

First published in Today’s Anaesthetist Vol.13 No.4 July/August 1998

LORD, IF ONE MORE PERSON tells me that giving an anaesthetic is like flying a plane, I will swing for them, I really will.

Look. The whole point of a plane is that it is designed to fly, and if it’s not working properly then you don’t take it off the ground. Human beings, in contrast, are not designed to be anaesthetized, and are often not working properly when the occasion arises. They are also rather poorly provided with back-up systems and spares, and frequently have long histories of inadequate servicing.

So if giving an anaesthetic is like flying a plane, then this must be what flying a plane is like:

Captain James Bigglesworth DSO stepped out into the thin sunlight, and took a deep breath of the damp air. It was good to be alive. He was taking up a new crate today, and he relished the little knot of mixed tension and anticipation that always formed at the pit of his stomach under such circumstances. He strode briskly towards the hangar.

The Junior Engineer was waiting next to the aeroplane. He handed Biggles a single sheet of paper, on which he had scrawled a haphazard note of his work on the craft.

“Is this all?” asked Biggles. “Where is the service record?”

“It seems to be lost. The filing department say it’s maybe still at the previous airfield.”

“And the manual?”

The Junior Engineer looked startled. “I don’t think there is one. We thought you knew how to fly a plane.”

A cloud drifted slowly across the sunny sky of Biggles’ mind. He began his walk-round.

“Where’s this oil coming from?”

The Junior Engineer frowned seriously. “I don’t know.”

Biggles sighed. But he too, long ago, had once been a Junior Engineer. “Where do you think it might be coming from?”

“The engine?” hazarded the youth.

“Of course. So what’s the oil level in the engine?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you checked the oil level?”


Biggles could feel his voice becoming a little tight, a little cold. “So could you check it now, please?”

“What? Now?”


“But you’re just going to take off. The Chief Engineer wants you to take off right away.”

“Not without an oil level. And this undercarriage strut is broken. And the port aileron is jamming intermittently.”

At that moment, the Chief Engineer arrived. “Biggles, old chap! Ready to take her up? Good man.”

“She’s not remotely airworthy. I need an oil level and some basic repairs.”

The Chief Engineer sighed. “What do you want an oil level for? You know it’s going to be low. We’ve got to get her into the air before we can control the leak. And that undercarriage and aileron aren’t going to get any better while we stand here. She needs to be in flight before I can properly assess them. Come on, old chap—the tower’s given us a slot in ten minutes’ time. If we don’t take off then, we’ll be waiting all day.” He eyed the plane despondently, and tapped a tyre with the toe of his boot. “And, frankly, I don’t think she’ll last much longer.”

Biggles rippled the muscles of his square jaw. The Bigglesworths had never balked at a challenge, but this … Well, there seemed to be no way out of it. He was going to have to take the old crate into the air, just as she stood. Deuced bad luck, of course, but no point in whining.

Twenty minutes later, they were aloft. The plane kept trying to fly in circles, and the engine temperature gauge was sitting firmly in the red. The Engineer was out on the cowling with a spanner.

“Just turn her off for a bit,” he bawled over the clattering roar of the sick engine.

Biggles was astonished. “What?

“Turn off the engine. There’s nothing I can do about this leak until the engine’s stopped.”

Reluctantly, Biggles turned off the engine, and trimmed the aircraft for a shallow glide. The weight of the Engineer, out there on the nose, was not helping matters at all.

Four minutes passed in eerie silence, as the treetops swam up to meet them. “I’m going to need power again soon.” There was no response from the Engineer. Another thirty seconds passed. “I need power.” No answer. “I’m turning on now.” The engine roared, and the Engineer recoiled, cursing, in a cloud of black smoke.

“What’s your game, Biggles, old man? I almost had the bally thing fixed, and now we’ll need to start all over again!”

Biggles bit back an angry retort, and concentrated on guiding the crippled plane upwards. This time, now that he knew what was going on, they would start their glide from a lot higher.

After another protracted glide, the Engineer clambered back into the cockpit, beaming. “All fixed!”

Biggles tapped the oil pressure gauge. “Pressure’s not coming up,” he said.

“It will, it will,” said the Engineer breezily. “Don’t be such a fusspot. Now let’s get the aileron sorted.”

He crawled out onto the wing, and began to strike the recalcitrant aileron with a hammer. A minute later, the plane rolled violently to the right. Biggles struggled momentarily for control, his lips dry. By cracky, they’d almost lost it completely, there.

“Don’t do that!” he called hoarsely to the Engineer.

“Do what?”

“Whatever you did, just then.”

“I wasn’t doing anything, old man.”

Almost at that moment the plane lurched again, more fiercely, and rolled through forty-five degrees. “That!” screamed Biggles, fighting the controls for his very life. “Don’t do that!

“Fair enough,” said the Engineer, cheerily. A minute later he did it again, and the plane was inverted for ten long seconds before a sweating Biggles regained any vestige of control.

“Fixed! Undercarriage next!” called the Engineer, and clambered out of sight below the fuselage.

Ten minutes later, Biggles caught brief sight of a set of wheels dropping away earthwards. “Couldn’t save ’em,” said the Engineer when he regained the cockpit. “Better off without them, frankly.”

“I still have very little oil pressure,” said Biggles, worriedly.

The Engineer pursed his lips and tapped the pressure gauge reflectively. “Well, the leak’s fixed, old man. Must be something about the way you’re flying her.” He reached under his seat and pulled out a parachute. “Look, I’m most frightfully sorry about this, but the nice men from Sopwith are taking me out to dinner tonight, so I’ve got to dash. Be a brick, Biggles old fellow, and just put her down anywhere you like. I’ll cast an eye over her in the hangar tomorrow morning.”

And with that, he was gone.

Biggles thought longingly of his own parachute. But he couldn’t abandon the old girl now. It wasn’t her fault, after all. Black, oily smoke was already billowing out of the engine cowling, however—he needed to put her down soon. He began to peer around for a flat place to land and, almost immediately, he spotted a distant grassy field. He moved the controls a little so that he could take a closer look.

He flew around the field once, and it certainly looked flat enough. Oddly, someone had painted huge white letters across the level green grass—I C U, it read. He had no idea what that meant, but it seemed vaguely comforting, for some reason. The engine coughed once, and then stopped. He could see a fitful orange glow beneath the cowling. This rummy ICU field would just have to do, it seemed.

As he swung the ailing aircraft around to make his final approach, he realized that the field was just a little too short for comfort. He licked his lips, and prayed that there would be enough room.

Writing: Introduction

When I was a solitary, bespectacled and distinctly oikotropic child growing up in Dundee, I seemed to be the only person in my class who brightened up when our English homework assignment was an essay. I liked writing.

The first time I actually (sort of) sold a bit of writing was in 1977. Punch magazine, then still in its late pomp, ran a “Student Humour” competition, inviting those in full-time education to write a comic piece about the year 2001. I bashed out my offering on a manual typewriter (with carbon paper) and posted it off—it placed second, was published in the Christmas issue, and scored me a cool £100, which was a very great deal of money. This was interesting …

Punch front cover, Christmas 1977

Looking at the piece now, on the far side of the year 2001, it’s a deeply bizarre item. It was entitled Employment Prospects.

In subsequent years, I got myself published in a odd variety of outlets. To give you an impression, I stacked some on the carpet and took a photo. It’s essentially the content of this blog, in nascent form:

Publications I've written for

I’ve already mentioned my writing on words and natural phenomena elsewhere on the blog. But of all the stuff represented in the picture above, the only piece currently available on-line is a Wanderlust travel article about Chile.

In the early 90s I started writing for The Angry Corrie, Scotland’s First & Finest Hillwalker’s Fanzine. The editor of that fine organ was Dave Hewitt, who was setting up TACit Press at the time. I ended up writing a slim volume of humorous hill-walking stories for TACit, Munro’s Fables, beautifully illustrated with Chris Tyler‘s cartoons, and now long out of print.

Munro's Fables cover

So twenty years later I was increasingly narked to see second-hand copies of Fables being sold on Amazon for more than the original cover price, with not a penny of it coming my way. I had the material for a sequel, but soon accumulated a stack of mostly complimentary rejection letters from publishing houses—they generally seemed to like the stories, but pointed out that the market for Scottish hillwalking humour just isn’t that big.

So in the end I put all the material together, old and new, and published two e-books myself. Chris Tyler did me a pair of covers, in his inimitable style:

Complete Lachlan cover

Walking Types Omnibus cover

When these sold pretty well, I was able to build a physical book as a compendium edition:

Complete Lachlan & Walking Types cover

If you’re interested in knowing more about these, they have their own pages (click the covers above), and also appear under “My Books” in the menu bar.